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State Withheld Evidence in Cop's Murder Trial

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 19, 2015 3:57 PM

Prosecutors impermissibly withheld potentially exculpatory evidence in their prosecution of an Ohio police lieutenant for the death of his wife. Thomas Barton was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after he allegedly hired a man to "scare" his wife by staging a robbery, only for the plan to go wrong and Barton's wife to end up dead.

Barton appealed, arguing that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence -- mainly that the sole witness against Barton may not have had the "burglar for hire" history that the state claimed. The Second Circuit agreed, finding that the evidence could have helped Barton's defense.

You Might Even Call It "Fantastical"

The state's explanation for Vicki Barton's murder is, to say the least, convoluted. For years, Vicki Barton's murder was considered a cold case, until it was revived in 2003, eight years after her killing, when Gary Henson was arrested for an unrelated burglary. Henson told detectives that his half-brother, William Phelps, had been having an affair with Vicki Barton. According to Henson, Phelps was also hired mid-affair by Vicki's cuckolded husband, to stage a robbery at Barton's residence. Vicki was home when Phelps panicked and shot her.

Henson's story shifted several times. For example, he testified on cross that it wasn't Phelps who shot Vicki, but an unidentified accomplice. Further, Phelps couldn't be called to trial because he had committed suicide years ago -- though he was exhumed. Henson's story was apparently bolstered by the state's claim that Henson had staged robberies before, something which was vehemently denied by the man whose house Henson was supposed to have fake- robbed. It's that denial that prosecutors never provided to Barton.

Brady Saves Barton

Under the Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors violate a defendant's due process rights when the withhold favorable evidence. The Brady rule covers impeachment and exculpatory evidence both, as well as evidence that would not be admissible. Here, failure to provide evidence that Henson may not have been a career faux-burglar would have at least allowed Barton to impeach Henson.

While state courts had rejected Barton's claims, the Sixth Circuit declined to give deference to those decisions. It noted that Barton's conviction was based on the testimony of a witness -- "not even an eyewitness, in fact" -- whose story was unsupported inconsistent and "somewhat fantastical." Suppressing material, exculpatory evidence violated the law and made it more difficult for Barton to impeach the only witness against him.

It took the state eight years to try Barton the first time. They will now have six months to try again.

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